Booktalk on China

Next week I’m giving a brief booktalk for my wonderful Popular Materials course. We were allowed to pick any topic for any audience. I chose to talk about books on China with an imaginary women’s book club as my audience.

I minored in Chinese Studies at Wofford College and traveled to the country in 2005. I’ve been fascinated by Chinese culture ever since.

visiting the Great Wall

It was difficult to narrow my list of books to ten. I imagined that my audience read mostly literary fiction, like me, and some nonfiction. I wanted to talk about some authors they’d probably heard of and some they probably hadn’t. Here’s what I came up with:

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

The story of two women who become laotongs (“old same” or sworn sisters). See’s novel is an enjoyable read. It includes some interesting bits of Chinese history including foot binding and Nüshu.

Spring Moon: A Novel of China by Bette Bao Lord

This multigenerational novel follows the House of Chang from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s. A servant’s suicide leads to a curse on the respected Chang family. Spring Moon faces turmoil within the walls of her home and outside as the Qing Dynasty collapses.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

As she did in the Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan explores the intricacies of mother-daughter relationships. LuLing and Ruth have always have always struggled to understand each other. Through LuLing’s writing, Ruth learns of her mother’s rejection of coffinmaker’s proposal and the dramatic consequences of that action.

Waiting by Ha Jin

For eighteen years Lin Kong, an army doctor, has been in a loveless marriage to Shuyu while in love with a nurse named Manna Wu. Each summer he returns home to end his marriage but never does. Lin promises Manna that this year will be different. Ha Jin received the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Waiting.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Dai Sijie tells the story of young men who are sent to the countryside for reeducation. They meet the daughter of a local seamstress and discover a trove of forbidden Western novels. Possibly the only book about the Cultural Revolution that isn’t depressing.

Red Azalea by Anchee Min

Min has led a remarkable life. Her life changes dramatically from denouncing her teacher during the Cultural Revolution to working in a labor collective and later being selected for the film of one of Madame Mao’s operas.

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

I debated whether to include Yiyun’s collection of short stories or her novel the Vagrants, which is excellent. In the end, I went with Gold Boy to give the list a little more variety.

The Moon Opera by Bi Feiyu

The story of a Beijing Opera star’s fall and attempted return to fame. I love Beijing Opera (though the music is an acquired taste). Like most stories about theater, Moon Opera has plenty of entertaining backstage drama.

China Wakes by Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, Pulitizer Prize-winning Beijing correspondents for the New York Times, describe their life in China from 1988 to 1993.

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed by Michael Meyer

For two years, Meyer lived in Beijing’s oldest neighborhood, Dazhalan. He describes living in a shared courtyard home with his Recycler Wang, Soldier Liu and the Widow. Meyer also laments that many of the old neighborhoods disappeared to make way for more modern structures, especially as the country prepared for the 2008 Olympics.


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